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Prairie dogs perform a variety of ecosystem services, including creating habitat, enriching soil, promoting biodiversity, and contributing to the food chain.
WHY ARE PRAIRIE DOGS SO VITAL TO GRASSLAND ECOSYSTEMS?

Peeking out from the safety of their dens, reaching high for a morning stretch, or enjoying a hug from a companion, prairie dogs can be a fun wildlife spotting. These charismatic creatures are even more interesting than many of us know due to their high sociability and value to the grassland habitats in which they live. As master communicators, prairie dogs can relay danger to one another through a variety of distinct high-pitched calls. This alarm system is so advanced that information about a predator’s color, speed/pace, shape, and size can all be delivered in one series of squeaks. Living in close-knit colonies, prairie dogs are also exceptional housekeepers. These small rodents build complex tunnels that are divided into distinct quarters for sleeping, defecating, looking after offspring, and food collection.


Perhaps prairie dogs’ most important quality, however, is their contribution to the environment. Although weighing just a few pounds, these fluffy rodents play a huge role in the health, structure, and function of grassland ecosystems. In turn, if the species was removed from their habitat, the ecosystem would be drastically altered. For these reasons, prairie dogs are considered keystone species. It has been estimated that prairie dog colonies benefit roughly 150 other species by offering a variety of ecosystem services. In Colorado, at least 9 species have been identified that specifically depend on the prairie dog for their survival.


Prairie Dogs Support Grassland Ecosystems in Many Ways:



1) Habitat/Shelter: Many grassland species depend on the intricately dug tunnels that prairie dogs dig for nesting, sheltering, or escaping predation. The burrowing owl, for example, requires the underground havens dug by prairie dogs or squirrels to nest.


2) Predation: Prairie dogs are an important food source for many predators, including hawks, coyotes, eagles, badgers, bobcats, foxes, and the endangered black-footed ferret. Staggering losses in prairie dogs throughout the past century has been a leading reason for the endangerment of the ferrets. As black-footed ferrets slowly recover from near extinction status, maintaining healthy quantities of their primary food source, prairie dogs, is imperative.


3) Safety: In addition to communicating between each other, the loud alarms set out by prairie dogs alert other species of an approaching predator or other perceived danger.


4) Healthy Grasslands: Prairie dogs fertilize, till, and aerate soil, through their everyday defecation and digging. These activities influence soil chemistry and produce healthier, more productive grassland ecosystems. This is especially notable as grassland ecosystems are among some of the most endangered landscapes on the planet and also support many endangered species.


5) Biodiversity: By increasing soil health and distributing seeds, prairie dogs promote biodiversity among plant and animal species. In particular, the abundance and health of major herbivores, such as bison and elk, are greatly linked to the presence of prairie dog colonies.


The War against Prairie Dogs


Unfortunately, prairie dogs have historically not been given the respect that they deserve. For many decades, these helpful rodents have been aggressively hunted, poisoned, and disregarded as “pests.” Landowners argue that prairie dog tunnels destroy their property and threaten the health of their livestock. Yet these claims are often overdramatized and do not outweigh the benefits of having prairie dogs on a landscape.As a result, hunting prairie dogs has been encouraged in many circles, even so as a recreational activity.


To complicate the matter, since the 1900s, the species has been dying off at alarming rates due to the introduction of the sylvatic plague. Transmitted by flea bites, this disease has a high mortality rate in prairie dogs (up to 90%). It is estimated that disease and extermination efforts combined are responsible for a near 95% decrease in populations. This is a devastating statistic considering how fragile grassland ecosystems already are. Habitat fragmentation/loss and urbanization also put immense pressure on the species, variables that seem to only be amplifying.


If you are a property owner and absolutely do not want prairie dogs in your space, please consider a nonlethal option. For example, try growing tall grasses along your properties parameter which can deter the prairie dogs from meandering into areas where they are unwelcome. Installing fencing is another possible solution. Lastly, check out this list on relocation facts from Colorado Parks and Wildlife: https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/SOC-Black-tailedPrairieDogRelocationFacts.aspx


Distribution

Foster, N.S. and Se. E Hyngstrom, 1990, Prairie Dogs and Their Ecosystems, Univ. of Nebraska Ext. Publ., Lincoln, 8pp.

Ranging from Canada to northern Mexico, five species of prairie dog inhabit North America. Of the total, three species are native to Colorado: black-tailed, Gunnison’s, and white-tailed. Gunnison’s prairie dogs live in the San Luis Valley and can be seen in the sparsely vegetated shrublands of the valley floor. Keep an eye out as you drive, since prairie dogs have a habit of hanging out near the roadside and attempting to cross major highways and streets. Do local ecology a favor; help protect this special keystone species!





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Updated: Jul 16

A special thanks to Rocky Mountain Wolf Project advisor, Rob Edward, for helping to inform this article. Rob Edward is a strategic advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, an all-volunteer organization with a vision to help facilitate coexistence between wolves and humans. Rob has been working to foment wolf restoring in Colorado since 1994.

Without them, there is notable change in biodiversity, hydrology, and overall ecosystem productivity.
Wolves are keystone species because they play a central role in the health and function of their ecosystems. Without them, there are notable changes in biodiversity, hydrology, and overall ecosystem productivity. 

For tens of thousands of years, wolves have occupied North American grasslands, woodlands, deserts, forests, and tundra. “Anywhere there were large ungulates,” reports Rocky Mountain Wolf Project advisor Rob Edward, “there were wolves.” As social apex predators, wolves have played an essential role in maintaining ecological balance across the continent. Their presence has directly influenced the course of waterways, the vitality of vegetation, and the

behaviors and abundance of certain wildlife. Honored by many Indigenous nations as sacred guides, wolves are keepers of ecological equilibrium, a true keystone species for Colorado and the continent at large.




Why are Wolves Keystone Species?


1) They Regulate Overgrazing: Hunting in family units, wolves are unique carnivores because they confront their prey head on, running directly through herds of ungulates in search of the weakest link. While also bringing nourishment to the pack, this hunting strategy encourages elk and deer to move around the landscape more often, protecting areas from overgrazing. This, in turn, allows for vegetation and soil to recover between browsing events. In this way, the hunting behaviors of wolves drives sustainable use of land by herbivores.

2) Balance the Food Chain: Through natural predation, wolves help foment genetic health of ungulate populations. Since wolves target the vulnerable, sick, or weak, the carnivores help to keep a herd’s overall vitality strong. Keeping ungulate populations in check is important as it encourages other species to thrive, such as plants and insects. Additionally, the carcasses from a wolf pack’s kill supports the nutritional needs of scavengers, like eagles, bears, coyotes, and ravens.

3) They Improve Riparian Habitats: Keeping ungulate populations in check is important because, if overpopulated, they can destroy an ecosystem. For example, too many elk in a riparian area can lead to overconsumption of stabilizing trees like willow, cottonwood, and aspens. These trees help to protect against erosion and help to maintain the productivity and course of a waterway.

4) Increase Biodiversity: Improved riparian conditions have a rippling effect on many other species, notably beaver (another important keystone species). A healthy riparian habitat encourages beavers to inhabit the area and build dams from willow and aspen branches, which eventually leads to the slowing and deepening of waterways. These conditions are ideal for many fish species. Songbirds, as well as other wildlife, also depend on healthy riparian habitats for hydration, shelter, and shade. Wolves enrich the vitality of any region that they inhabit. From supporting birds and beavers, to insects and grasses, wolves are intricately linked to the productivity and biodiversity of North American ecology at large.


“A Campaign of Genocide”

Despite the many ways that wolves enrich our landscape, a violent past of excessive and inhumane hunting, trapping, and poisoning throughout the 1900s drastically reduced wolf populations across the continent. When European Americans first settled in the West, they brought with them their livestock. Clearing pasture and removing bison from the great plains were first steps to bringing their ranches to fruition. They also excessively hunted elk and deer to satisfy the growing demands of the meat market in the east coast. Between land conversions and drastic reductions in ungulate populations, wolves quickly lost both their food source, and much of their native prairie habitat. Ranchers complained that wolves were preying on their livestock, causing a dramatic uproar that began what Edward calls “a campaign of genocide” against wolves.


By 1914, the federal government had established a special branch, dubbed the U.S. Biological Survey, committed to eradicating wolves across the US. Millions of dollars went to training young men to track, attract, and kill wolves and their pups. Edward shares that poison, traps, direct shootings, and even beating pups to death were all methods used. These massacres nearly wiped-out wolves from the North American continent. In many states across the US, not a single wolf remained. By 1945, wolves were extinct in Colorado.


A few fragmented populations survived the brutal period in Canada. As big game recovered and the war against wolves waned in the latter half of the 1900s, some packs migrated south into Michigan, and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Today, wolf populations have partially recovered in the Northern Rocky Mountains, with steady populations in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California.


The campaign to kill wolves, however, is not over. Certain groups continue to circulate inaccurate information that wolves are bad for the cattle industry, dangerous to livestock, and that they deplete big game populations. As a result, it is legal and encouraged to hunt wolves in several US states including Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Idaho recently passed a bill to reduce their wolf population by 90%, meaning the slaughter of up to 1,300 wolves. Lawmakers are permitting aggressive hunting techniques such as the use of night vision goggles for late night hunting, as well as tracking and killing them with the assistance of motorized vehicles. This means that hunters can literally chase packs of wolves until they are too exhausted to continue, an unfair fight indeed.


To complicate the matter, last year the Trump administration lifted federal protections for gray wolves nationwide. Having enjoyed protection under the Endangered Species Act since 1978, the gray wolf has just barely regained footing in the Northern Rockies. Populations are still nowhere what they once were, and states like Colorado have had little to no wolf activity in the past 25 years. Support efforts to put the gray wolf back on the endangered species list, sign the petition.


Ecological Cascade

Without wolves Edward notes that there are “widespread negative ecological consequences.” Beavers, willows, aspens, native fish, and many more species all suffer when wolves aren’t keeping the elk and deer on-the-move. Edward shares that reestablishing wolf populations to their native habitats can help to address these negative outcomes.


Reintroducing Wolves to Colorado

Last November, Coloradans passed Proposition 114, which mandates that wolf reintroduction must be in the works by December 2023 on Colorado’s western slope. Edward explains that the western edge of Colorado is specious with roughly 17 million acres of public land, and one of the largest elk populations in North America. Although specific plans remain the purview of the state game management agency, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, it is likely that the reintroduction team will bring family units of wolves from the Northern Rockies to western Colorado’s public lands, beginning in early 2024. If the wolves respond well to the relocation, Edward is optimistic that they may slowly repopulate much of the western half of Colorado, wherever elk numbers are sufficient to support them.


When considering the challenges to this reintroduction, Edward admits that there will always be people out there that dislike wolves. Therefore, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project team will continue to dispel misinformation about wolves and will build a program to support long-term coexistence strategies. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project will be “beating the drum” for coexistence between humans and wolves, helping a variety of stakeholders to understand that it is both possible and beneficial to live alongside wolves.


Areas where agencies have reintroduced wolves, like the Northern Rockies, have already seen increases in elk populations, not declines. Furthermore, livestock kills by wolves are negligible. There is no evidence to show that any rancher has ever gone out of business because of wolves, claims Edward. Furthermore, under Proposition 114, ranchers can rest easy knowing that the state will compensate them for any livestock lost to wolves. Edward laments that the socially perpetuated stigmas about wolves are likely not going anywhere, but over time, as the science continues to get out, a safer world for wolves is possible!


Importance of Wolves to Indigenous Culture

For thousands of years, and still today, wolves have been a revered species by many Indigenous nations, honored as teachers and guides and valuable members of planet Earth. Below is an excerpt from The Wolf: A Treaty of Cultural and Environmental Survival, sourced from the Global Indigenous Council, which speaks to the cultural significance of wolves:

“The wolf taught us to hunt and imparted that “those with hooves and horns” would sustain us physically, but “those with paws and claws” were to provide spiritual sustenance. Wolves gave of themselves to enable us to live the “Dog Days,” offering their progeny to accompany us, to help us travel and traverse vast distances, to protect us, as their descendants – domestic dogs – do today. We commit to perpetuate and continue our spiritual ceremonies, sacred societies, sacred narratives and sacred bundles in which the wolf has a unique place, which in practice is a means to embody the thoughts and beliefs of ecological balance. Realizing that the wolf is a foundation of our traditional ways, we commit to the ideal of preservation and restoration in all aspects of our respective cultures related to the wolf, including customs, practices, naming, beliefs, songs, astronomy and ceremonies.”

To learn more about wolves and Indigenous culture, visit the Global Indigenous Council’s website: https://www.globalindigenouscouncil.com/wolf-treaty


*To attend attend a public open house on the Wolf Restoration plan, Register Here.

*To Submit comments, visit the 2021 Comment Form.

*For a list of other open houses held across Colorado, Visit https://www.wolfengagementco.org/online-open-house-comment-form




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After over 30 years of legal battles, *Friends of Wolf Creek await the judge’s verdict. The outcome of this ruling will either grant or decline Wolf Creek Pass developers access to US Forest Service lands that connect the project site to HWY 160. Without approved access, development cannot continue. *Rocky Mountain Wild, San Juan Citizens Alliance, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and supporting organizations combine to form the Friends of Wolf Creek (FWC) coalition.


Backstory

At over 10,000 feet elevation along Wolf Creek Pass, sits a highly contentious piece of property. Nestled between the South San Juan and Weminuche Wilderness Areas, this 300-acre plot offers uninterrupted and safe passage to a variety of Colorado wildlife, including the threatened Canadian lynx. The property is also in proximity to the southern headwaters of the Rio Grande and contains highly productive and rare fen wetland ecosystems.


For over thirty years, out-of-state investors have fought to develop this pristine landscape into a gargantuan “Village” that would support up to 8,000 residents and 1,700 built units, including hotels, shops, homes, and restaurants. The US Forest Service (USFS), of whom manages the surrounding lands, has enabled these development efforts, despite the sensitivity of the surrounding landscape, for reasons that have left the public bewildered. Friends of Wolf Creek (FWC), a team of Colorado environmental groups, has worked tirelessly to give voice to the animals, water, air, soils, and local communities that would suffer at the hands of this aggressive development project. Visit FWC’s The Issues page for more details on how the Village would harm human and animal life.


Since the land was first acquired in 1986, under a dubious land exchange between the USFS and Leavell Properties, Inc., ecological concerns voiced by environmental advocates and residents have been ignored. Current property owner and project lead B.J. McCombs has done everything in his will to bypass environmental policies that would prevent large scale Village development. Perplexingly, the USFS has been a steady supporter of McComb’s aspirations, despite clearly going against public interest. FWC’s representing lawyer Travis Stills adds that the Forest Service has “consistently ignored judicial rulings and careful analysis of environmental law,” while simultaneously disregarding public comment. In response, FWC has filed a series of lawsuits against the Forest Service and McCombs to prevent Village construction and keep both entities honest. Attorney Stills is sharing the burdensome workload with Rocky Mountain Wild attorney Matt Sandler. For a complete legal history and timeline, consult FWC’s A Brief History.


The Current Case

Since McCombs’s property, known as an "inholding," is situated between two significant wilderness areas, developing the Village requires that the USFS allows for an access road to cut through their lands. The road would connect the McCombs property to Highway 160 and be instrumental to future utility infrastructure and development. In July 2018, the Forest Service announced that they would be granting expanded access, in the form of a road and utility corridor through the National Forest and wetlands, to McCombs’s property. The agency justified their decision by claiming that it is their legal responsibility, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), to permit whatever access the developer requests. FWC attorney Stills explains, however, that ANILCA represents law specific to the state of Alaska and does not bind the USFS to provide whatever access agreement the Wolf Creek developers demands. Instead, Stills asserts that the Forest Service is using ANILCA to falsely represent themselves as a powerless entity. In briefing, even the Forest Service admitted that ANILCA does not provide authority to create a corridor to provide water, electricity, gas, and other utilities required for the sprawling development proposal.


FWC lawyers claim that the Forest Service’s reasoning is flawed because they indeed do have the power to reject McCombs’s proposal if they deemed the project as unreasonable, contrary to law, or oppositional to public interest. In fact, previous judges have already dismissed the Forest Service’s ANILCA argument. Past federal courts dubbed the excuse as an “artful dodge” that abdicates the power Congress gave the Forest Service to manage the National Forest.


In 2019, FWC filed another lawsuit to refute the Forest Service’s decision to permit transportation and utility access through federally managed lands. After over 30 years of legal battles, FWC is awaiting the judge’s verdict. The outcome of this ruling will either grant or decline developer access to Forest Service lands that connect the site to HWY 160. Without approved commercial access, development cannot commence. The results could come any day now, reports Stills. Meanwhile, McCombs enjoys access to the property for non-commercial uses via Forest Road 391, pursuant to the controversial 1986 Land Exchange.


The Desired Outcome

Stills relays that a variety of case outcomes would be welcomed, as long as the integrity of Wolf Creek Pass ecology is maintained. FWC envisions several scenarios whereby McCombs’s property could be returned to federal ownership and oversight, so to prevent future development. This transaction could transpire through either a monetary or property exchange. Or, if the property remains in private holding, McCombs could settle for building a much smaller and less destructive development like the base area that was initially agreed upon in the 1986 land exchange. Lastly, all reasonable scenarios must be fully examined by the USFS and other agencies with jurisdiction and expertise. They should conduct a thorough environmental impact analysis that provides a full examination of impacts and restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act (Canada lynx, Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, American Pika, etc.), Clean Air Act (power plant, road emissions, etc.), Clean Water Act (wetlands, sewer plant discharges, stormwater, etc.), and other laws that protect the fragile environment atop Wolf Creek Pass. Stills is confident that if the Forest Service took the time to do this, they would come to the “inescapable conclusion that nothing is reasonable to be built there,” and therefore, the property “should not be held by private entities.”


Regardless of the judge’s ruling, Stills explains that the courts do not hold all the power in deciding development outcome. McCombs faces huge infrastructural hurdles, such as installing power lines along the high elevation pass, getting water to the development, and building municipal wastewater treatment plants. These details have never been seriously addressed, with the Forest Service accepting “to be determined,” vague descriptions, and fanciful plans such as engineering a methane-fired generating station on site. Not to mention, the developer has to gain approval from Mineral County, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Army Corps of Engineers, to name a few. Developers should have to prove that the project will have minimal impact on the region’s streams and wetlands. Based on the immense challenges that would need to be overcome, Stills describes the project as being “somewhere between fantasy and insanity.” Even if McCombs gets legal footing to proceed with the Village, a project of this scale in this place is unlikely to succeed in the long-term. It is Stills fear through, that in the process of trying and failing, repeatedly, pristine wilderness will be irreversibly destroyed.


A Beloved Landscape

While the battle to protect Wolf Creek Pass has been long and tedious, Friends of Wolf Creek partners and allies remain committed to protecting this special piece of Southern Colorado. Some advocates have been following and participating in this case for over thirty years and continue to fight for the vital ecosystems and wildlife that make Wolf Creek Pass extraordinary. SLVEC Director Christine Canaly shares that the Wolf Creek Pass case is very close to her heart, as it was the first campaign she worked on as the Council’s Director. Since 2000, she has strived to represent the public’s interest, as well as all the non-human life that thrives in the Wolf Creek Pass area. A shared love for Wolf Creek Pass ensures that the fight to protect it will continue regardless of the court’s ruling. SLVEC, and its partners at Friends of Wolf Creek, will continue to fight for the long-term protection of this pristine landscape for future generations to enjoy.


Take Action

Want to help protect Wolf Creek Pass? Your voice matters, and so do your actions! Support the cause:


-Discuss what you have learned in this article and related resources with your friends!

-Pass on educational materials found in our newsletters and blogs to those in your circle.

-Share information on social media; use #NoPillage.

-Make a monetary contribution to Friends of Wolf Creek: https://www.friendsofwolfcreek.org/.

-Stay informed. We will be posting the court verdict once it is released!

-Know a member of the Forest Service or other local, state, or federal agency? Discuss the case with them; be a moral guide.


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